A Brief History of Illuminated Manuscripts

Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139
Telephone (617) 492-4653,


The Antiquity of Manuscript Books

Manuscript books began to supplant papyrus scrolls in Antiquity. Rare surviving books of the Fourth Century are surprisingly similar in general appearance to works written a millennium later. Until the late Middle Ages, the great majority of western books were written in monasteries by scribes, who enjoyed the highest social status in their communities. As civilization progressed and the demand for books became greater, later works were executed by pupils of the Renaissance "writing master", who taught the craft to apprentices. Some early students' copybooks survive as witnesses to the difficulties of mastering this exacting skill.

Of Vellum and Paper

These early books were mostly written on vellum, a fine grade of goat, calf, or sheep skin. Fortunately for collectors, it is an extremely durable substance which generally survives the centuries well. It was an expensive material, however, and the production of a complete Bible, for example, might require years of a scribe's time, and the skins of several hundred animals, thus making books a rare and expensive commodity. The Medieval practice of autumn livestock butchering, to conserve fodder for the winter, is thought to have been the primary source of skins used in the production of books. How the skins were prepared has been recorded in a monastic account of the Twelfth century; they were alternately soaked in clear water, immersed in a strong lime solution, then scraped of hairs, and sun-dried. The process was repeated over the course of several weeks until the vellum became sufficiently clean and flexible for use. As natural animal products, old vellum leaves and documents exhibit wide variations in texture, thickness, and tone, and almost all books exhibit a few small natural flaws in the leaves, around which the copyist skillfully worked his text. One side of a vellum is always darker than the other, as the "inside" side of the skin was harder to clean of flesh than the outer or "skin" side.

The art of paper-making was first utilized by the Chinese, who appear to have discovered the craft as early as the 2nd century B.C. Paper first became available to the rest of the world in the mid- 8th century, as Arab contacts with the Chinese at Samarkand divulged the secrets of its manufacture, from fibrous vegetable matter. Initially flax and linen were the favored materials in the west; in later years the rarer cotton was also used. The first European center of paper-making was in Moorish Spain in the 12th century. From there Italy became the first great center of the paper-making industry, its factories beginning in 1276 and supplying much of Europe's needs as late as the 15th century. In Germany, France, and the Netherlands there also developed thriving paper-making concerns by 1400. Concurrent with the rise of printing in the last half of the 15th century was the supplanting of vellum by paper in the making of books, with the former all but abandoned within a century.

Pens and Inks

Pens used by the copyists were generally natural quills, plucked from geese, crows, or turkeys, or later, iron pens. Inks exist in two major kinds. One is black encaustic, an acidic iron gall mixture that etches into the vellum and thus fixes itself ineradicably. The other and more often employed ink is a mixture of common lampblack, a fixing agent and a medium such as oil or water. It is brown in color and, although it has a slight tendency to flake off the vellum under humid condition, MSS written in this common ink are still fully legible today. Colored inks were most often supplied in red and blue, though oils in all colors were available and used in the most sumptuous presentation volumes for royalty and the clergy. Gold accents were sometimes added to the MSS, in two forms, one of gold leaf, which still retains its flashing brilliance in extant manuscripts, and the other as gold ink, which adds a lovely highlight to the initial letter decorations.

Types of Books

The great majority of early books in the Western world are of religious content, as fitting the "Age of Faith". Consequently, most manuscript leaves and books surviving today are Bibles, Psalters, Books of Hours, and Breviaries. Manuscript books stating the name of the copyist and exact year of their production exist, but they are the rare exception rather than the rule, as our modern notions of self and time were irrelevant to the Medieval world view. The works are, generally, attributed by the style of the script and rubrication (ornamentation), which are quite unique to their time and place of origin and can readily be recognized. Thus surviving works can be attributed with authority to the correct city or region, and to their period within a date range of a generation or so. Even after the advent of printing, traditional manuscript books, especially Hours, continued to be produced for several generations, and these are readily discernible from their ancestors of earlier times.

At the pre-Renaissance period, Bibles and other Sacred books were copied by monks in "carols", small cubicles set up in the cloisters of the monasteries and great cathedrals in response to the unprecedented need for copies of books. It is of interest that the monkish copyists traditionally spoke the words aloud as they wrote them. This oral "chewing" of the text was closely associated with the act of prayer, also helping to identify words whose meaning might be otherwise obscure in the original MSS due to misspelling or excessive use of contractions. The reading of the Holy text was also considered a form of meditation in which the scribe savored Divine wisdom directly from his books, which retained the mystical aura of miraculous objects at this period.

In a surviving sermon of a twelfth century English Bishop to the monkish copyists of Durham Cathedral is found this eloquent summation of both the reverent attitude toward illuminated manuscript books and of the materials used in their production:

"You write with the pen of memory on the parchment of pure conscience, scraped by the knife of Divine fear, smoothed by the pumice of heavenly desires, and whitened by the chalk of holy thoughts. The ruler is the Will of God. The split nib is the joint love of God and our neighbor. Coloured inks are heavenly grace. The exemplar is the life of Christ."

The End of Manuscript Production

The introduction of printing from movable type in 1455 signalled the end of an era. Within a generation virtually all book production was undertaken using the new and vastly more inexpensive technology of the printing press. The explosion of knowledge brought about by this unprecedented dissemination of books immensely benefitted mankind, helping to usher in the freedom of thought and material prosperity that define the modern world.

Paris remained a center of the production of handwritten religious books until about 1540, due in no small part to the clout of the scribes' guilds. Catholic Spain was the final bastion of the old ways, where Antiphonals would continue to be handwritten by cloistered monks well into the eighteenth century. Many of the now jobless scribes of the 15th century found employment as rubricators of the earliest printed books, adding the traditional handpainted Uncial initial letters and other embellishments to the printed texts.

Manuscript Leaves as Collector's Items

The study and collecting of old manusctripts has been actively pursued for centuries. The great majority of these early works have perished over time, victims of hard use and the incessant warfare that scourged Europe. The collecting of individual leaves from defective or incomplete works has been an accepted part of the bibliophile's world for an equally long period. The factors determining a manuscript leaf's collectibility are, generally speaking, its appearance, condition, and rarity. The more artistic the piece the greater is the collector demand, and hence its value. Leaves with illustrations and fine decoration are currently collectors' favorites. Leaves from Bibles and prayer books are the most likely to be encountered in today's market, followed in general category by Classical Lation authors' works. Manuscript leaves from works on science, technology, astronomy, alchemy and the like are virtually non-existent in today's collector market as such works are very arre and should never be broken up for leaves, no matter how fragmentary.

Today these leaves are extremely popular for decorating. Housed in suitable mats and frames they remain lovely works of art and the most affordable artifacts from the pre-Renaissance era. The mats in which they may be housed for display should always be made of archival quality materials, to ensure that their contents will remain undamaged.


Like most old things, the ancient books and leaves that have survived the attrition of the centuries have done so because they were purposely cared for. Thus they tend to be found in surprisingly fine condition. Old paper is made of a durable mixture of natural plant fibers that were not exposed to harsh Industrial Age chemical finishes. Thus they are not found embrittled or badly discolored. Ancient vellum is also extremely durable and survives in fine condition, though all old skins exhibit natural variations in tone and color.

Briefly, the enemies of all old documents are heat, humidity, and sunlight. To maintain their fine condition, they should be kept in a stable storage environment free of excess fluctuation in temperature and humidity. There should be limited contact with circulating air and strong light. To accomplish these goals, select a dry, cool place in your home to store your collection. Any room suitable for habitation will generally be satisfactory for the preservation of this material.. Never leave it in the basement or attic, where change of temperature and humidity occur regularly and can cause deterioration.
If you frame your collection, include an ultraviolet filtering screen between them and bright light. Secondly, select only archival quality acid free containers for permanent storage. These can be fairly costly if purchased already made up, but with a little ingenuity, some Mylar, and double-sided adhesive tape, you can make your own custom holders at a considerable savings. Documents maybe treated with acid-neutralizing chemical agents, though it is suggested that amateurs do not attempt this process as the solvents can be harmful and the results erratic.

The World Wide Web is a gold mine of helpful information of all kinds for the collector, archivist, and historical hobbyist. Here are a few suggested links for further information on the care and preservation of collectibles of all kinds.

Conservation Information
The Northeast Document Conservation Center (http://www.nedcc.org). This excellent site includes an online version of the Center's very helpful book Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual.
Conservation OnLine (http://palimpsest.stanford.edu). A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, this site abounds in useful information and has a wide variety of links for further online resources.
UNESCO's "Memory of the World" project (http://www.unesco.org/webworld/mdm/index.html). This very ambition project aims to "promote the preservation of the documentary heritage of mankind" and to this end discusses many way of preserving paper, photos, and modern archival materials.
http://www.natmus.min.dk/ixgb.htm. This site contains Tim Padgfield's An Introduction to the Physics of the Museum Environment, a useful discussion on relative humidity and its effect on collections, with techniques for environmental monitoring.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (http://spnhc.org). Featured here are a number of pamphlets, including several on insect pests and identification of archival quality plastics.

Commercial Websites
University Products. This site sells the finest archival quality supplies to house your collection, and books on how to care for your valued collectibles.
Action Plastic Sales. Here you will find a wide selection of economically priced polyethylene slips (useful for shipping and short term storage) and other useful supplies.
L-W Book Sales & Publishing. Excellent retail source for reference books and price guides in many areas of antiques and collectibles.

You can also visit my information pages on collecting, collector terminology, how to read my general catalog descriptions, and more by selecting this link.

Illustrations of Illuminated Manuscript Leaves

Select here to view a full color scan (in 96K JPEG format) of a leaf from a Latin Bible written in northern France ca. 1200 - 1250. When done viewing, select GO BACK in your browser to return to this page. The current market value of this type of leaf is in the range of $250.00 - 500.00.
Select here to view a full color scan (in 66K JPEG format) of a finely illuminated leaf from a Latin Book of Hours, Use of Soissons, France, ca. 1450. When done viewing, select GO BACK in your browser to return to this page. The price range for this type of leaf is currently $225.00 - 475.00.

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